Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hungry for Heaven

As I was swimming through mile 16, I looked up into the trees, desperate for anything to take my mind off the agony of de feet, and I saw a bird.
It was a big bird, and it peered down at us, with an expression that was hard to read. I glanced at my dog and looked back at the bird. For a moment, I thought it was sizing up my companion. But I decided against that after a bit. The bird wasn't looking at my dog. It was looking at me.
Well, that was appropriate, I thought. My face was probably red, and I was moving like a wounded coyote and moaning like a kicked cat. The energy chew in my cheek had turned to sandpaper.
As I got closer, preparing to shuffle underneath the branches where it perched, I still couldn't tell if it was an eagle or a hawk. As the sun baked my pride, my thoughts turned darker. I guessed it was a vulture.
It knew, as they always do, that it probably wouldn't be long now.
• • •
I had the day off, and I figured it was the perfect time to get my 21-mile run out of the way. That's honestly how I approached it. Let's just get this little training run out of the way, I thought, like it was an errand.
I knew it would be a little warmer than usual, as I had to drop off my son at school before I started, which would force me to start at 9 a.m., about three hours after my usual time. Which is why I filled an extra two 8-ounce bottles. For my dog. I'd be fine, I thought. I was a lot more worried about her. She didn't do well in warm weather.
When I started, I didn't expect to feel great. It was my sixth day of running, and I'd pushed it hard on many of them. There was a 12-miler in there, a couple aggressive pace runs, an 800s interval workout and a tempo run. This would be my biggest week, as I'd planned on running nearly 60 miles. Training for a marathon is never easy, and I had some special goals planned for this one.
Even so, I'd yet to have a bad training run. They're fairly common, but I felt great throughout this whole  cycle. Two weeks ago, my last mile on my 21-miler was fast. So, sure, I thought of this 21-miler as just another run, something I needed to do before I'd come home and enjoy the rest of the day.
I still don't know if I got cocky, or if the fact that all my other runs had gone well simply tricked me into thinking that all I needed to do was strap on my shoes and the magic would happen.
I didn't even consider that 9 a.m. was considerably different than 6 a.m. I didn't consider that maybe I should make sure I drank before I left. I had a cup of coffee, my usual, and a couple swallows of Gatorade before I headed out. When it's 6 a.m., and the temperature was 45 degrees, where 90 percent of my runs took place, you can do that. When it's 9 a.m. and already 75 degrees?
I knew I was in trouble before mile 6.
I didn't want to acknowledge it. There are dark periods in many runs. But this time it felt different.
It felt like I was swimming. Treading water is more like it.
I knew a water fountain was waiting for me at mile 14, and so, I kept going. I needed the miles. You can't cheat your long run and hope to do well in a marathon. I decided to suck it up. It'll pass, I thought.
I'd be miserable for more than two hours, and at one point, underneath that bird, I honestly did wonder if I'd make it home. If I start shivering, I thought, I'll call 9-1-1.
• • •
I lined up Saturday at the starting line of the Rock and Roll Half Marathon in Denver with a plan that'd I'd never had before in a race: To back off when it hurt too much.
I don't want to sound like a hard-nosed, egotistical badass, but almost always, when it hurts in a race, I know I'm doing my job. Races are really fun, but they are supposed to be hard, too. Races are times when you blow out your engine. It's a chance to look under the hood and see what you can do.
But the schedule, the advanced plan by Hal Higdon, called for a pace run. A pace run is a run at your planned marathon pace. They're supposed to be hard, but not too hard. They're not tempo runs, intervals or fartleks, and they're certainly not races.
Thursday left me warn out. But truth be told, I was a little shaken by it too. It took me four hours to finish those 21 miles, and I had to walk several times, and I was grateful to be home, almost to the point of crying. I guzzled a large cup of chocolate milk and went to bed for an hour, uncaring that my sheets were sticking to my skin, and then I rose, like a vampire at midnight, and drank many cups of water. Despite the almost constant intake, I didn't pee until 7 p.m. that night.
The run made me feel like a rookie and an old man at the same time.
So at the urging of my running partners, I decided to run a little easier. I'd pace it, sure, but when it got a little too hard - race hard - I would back off.
The race went quickly, and I felt great most of the time. I ran a Colorado PR (altitude), at 1:39, with plenty left in the tank.
There are times even a veteran like me will doubt the training, your body and your will to do great things.
The little pick-me-ups like Saturday's race are a good reminder of that. I'll try to remember those gifts every time I have a good run. Those dark times are always lurking if you don't recognize them, respect them and, sometimes, run a little faster under their shadows as they gaze down upon you and wonder when you'll give up for good.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The edge

It was a beautiful spot. The east ridge of Pacific Peak touched the edge of the Earth, the lush tundra called to us below and we were surrounded by giants, including the 14er Quandary, whose summit was dotted with dozens of tiny climbers.
I have always loved the beauty of the mountains. I'll never tire of it. I've seen things many others haven't.
But this time, I wasn't taking any of it in. I was scrambling up the side of Pacific, in full escape mode, hoping and, yes, praying, that the darkening clouds above us held off.
Just a half hour ago, my climbing partner made a good, smart decision. She looked at the time, 9:45 a.m., did some quick calculations, and realized we still had a couple hours to go before we'd be done with the jagged ridge before us. She suggested we stop there given the way the weather felt. And then she made a bad one: The side of that hill looks pretty good, she said. Let's do it. And then I made the worst decision of all: I agreed. Even though I could not see the bottom of the hill, I agreed. 
Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes the hill runs out all the way to the soft, green tundra, to safety, and you get to climb another day. This day, on a summer day in early August near Breckenridge, the ski resort, we were not lucky. Instead, we got what climbers call "cliffed." The way down looked like a broken leg. The way back up looked only slightly better. The rocks were loose and sharp, and our legs were heavy. But we had no choice. We went back up. 
Then I took a look around and realized that even if we hurried, we'd find ourselves near the crest of a ridge just as the clouds would gather themselves into a storm. Or not. If, you know, we were lucky.
As we scrambled hard to the ridge, our breathing decaying into ragged gasps, I paused to remind my partner that the odds of a lighting strike, however frightening, were small. Many more times, people panic, I said, and then they take a tumble. 
So relax, I told her. We'll get through this.
And then I started swearing and tried to believe it.
• • •
Two days before, I had led a group up Longs Peak. Longs is one of Colorado's most iconic mountains, in a state stuffed with them, a peak underrated in its difficulty only because of the number of people who climb it every year. 
And yet I had a great day up mountain. The years I'd put into running, to the point where I'd sacrificed a good portion of my days on the peaks, were paying off, and if I allowed myself to become cocky, I'd call the trip up easy. It wasn't, of course, because the last time I got cocky on a peak, years ago, I tripped and was less than three feet from falling to a messy death. Really, the day wasn't easy by any stretch, with 12 hours of climbing and hiking, many of them above 13,000 feet. But it was easier than ever before. The group I led up was prepared, responsive and calm, and at age 40, I was in the best shape in my life.
That feeling was short-lived.
When I woke up the next morning, my knee hurt. I shrugged it off, but it did worry me a bit because of the source of the pain. Many years ago, my worst climbing accident by far snagged me in the middle of a avalanche of car-sized boulders. I got lucky. I not only survived but didn't get nearly as messed up as I should have. But I DID get beat up, and part of the injuries was an ever-so-slight tear of my ACL. 
Doctors said as long as I kept my legs strong, it should be OK.
I kept my legs strong, and it was OK. But now, more than a decade later, the pain in my knee was a reminder that I was getting older, and it was possible I wasn't going to be able to push it as hard as I once did. I once climbed seven peaks in a week. Pacific was two days away. If I could do seven in a week, surely I could do two, even if that was eight years ago.
• • • 
Once I finished the 14ers, I knew the days of climbing 10-20 peaks a year were behind me. That was in 2005, and that's also the year Jayden was born. He would cut into the time it took to climb. The twins, born two years later, would reduce it to a pittance. This wasn't something that was done to me, however. It was a choice, and I was OK with it. 
I didn't want to be away that much, and climbing a mountain takes at least a full day and usually the edges of the morning and the night. Not only that, climbing was dangerous. I didn't want to leave my kids without a father. So I compromised. I told myself that at least one tough, exposed peak a year was OK. In fact I made myself do it. I didn't want to lose sight of who I was. But I would leave many for a day when the kids were on their own.
The transition was easier than I thought because ironically, in 2005, I discovered running.
Almost every story of someone who became a runner later in his life starts with "I hated running." And yeah, I hated running, but not as much as others do at the start. I was fit when I started with an intervals group. I was a climber. I was out practically every weekend. I worked out all the time. So I didn't hate running. I just didn't see the point.
But there was a point. Running was a way for me to stay active and stay competitive, to set goals and achieve them, to wear me out and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment, only I didn't have to be away from my family for so long to do it. 
• • • 
I was supposed to do my second gnarly peak of the year, this time up Ice Mountain, a peak I'd wanted to climb for years. I was really looking forward to it. It was exposed, with some tough climbing, in a beautiful spot.
Even so, I thought hard about it as we tried to escape Pawnee's east ridge. My knee hurt again, and this time it wasn't just a dull ache, as I needed a couple Advil to calm it down. I didn't know if we were getting down, and my kids went through my head. Plus I had this marathon coming up.
Now I wondered what the point was of mountaineering. 
We scrambled to just below the ridge on a diagonal line,  out of breath, and I glanced down at the slope again. This time it looked much friendlier. I could see more of the route, and it looked like it might go all the way down to the tundra. We couldn't see a trail, but I could see a big lake, and guessed that the trail home would probably circle the lake.
The sky was dark, and we decided to go for it.
As we approached the bottom of the slope, my sense of dread got fainter, and sure enough, not only did the slope drop into the tundra, we found the trail by the lake.
We got lucky.
I thought that thoughts of canceling Ice Mountain would fade, too, with every step on the much safer trail. But they didn't. 
What's more important to you, I thought. 
I chose the marathon. I called her a couple weeks later and canceled. 
I'd done this unofficially for years, but it hit me when I finished the conversation that I was choosing running over mountaineering.
For now.
• • •
One thing that's made that stark choice easier is the fact that I've actually hiked more than I have in years. Only many the hikes have been with my kids. So I've traveled a lot of paths that I used to scoff at. For many years, these smaller hikes were not the destination. They were a place to have breakfast on my way to greater things.  
So? So I've really enjoyed these hikes too. Saturday's hike was to one of my favorite spots in all of Colorado, Isabelle Lake. It's really beautiful. Sometimes I forgot to notice that.
In fairness to the mountains, I haven't raced a ton this summer either. The marathon's taken a priority over everything, not just mountaineering. It should. It's a marathon, and running about 50 miles a week is tough to squeeze on your and in a life schedule that includes kids and work. Philosophically this eases my mind. I'm not just a runner. I'm still a mountaineer.
The mountains were such a part of my life for many years that I can't, and won't, let them go completely.
Yet here's what I've discovered. Running is giving me some gifts that I didn't know it could. In fact, more of the same gifts that mountaineering always gave me.
I'm seeing things many others haven't.
Sunday, on a 10-miler with my dog, at 6:30 a.m., I was on a trail shrouded by early-morning fog. It was crisp. Smoke curled from the river 100 yards away. And on that river, a great blue heron took off into the sky, climbing until it touched the edge of the Earth.
I took it all in for just a moment. And then I went on down the path.